Football team confronts season without their big man

Updated: August 25, 2003, 8:44 PM ET

DEKALB, Ill. -- Each day Brad Cieslak takes a moment to pause at the glass-encased locker before he jogs out to the Northern Illinois football field for practice.

Enclosed are the jersey and helmet of Shea Fitzgerald, the Huskies' 6-foot-7, 300-pound starting tackle who was one of 13 people killed when a three-story porch collapsed earlier this summer in Chicago.

"I look at it every day before I go out to practice," Cieslak said. "Just to remember he's there with us, because we know he is."

Cieslak, a tight end, was with Fitzgerald the night he died.

They were at a party together in Chicago's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood when Cieslak left the third-floor porch to grab a drink.

Seconds later, the wooden deck filled with Fitzgerald and other partygoers crashed to the ground in a mass of splintered wood and bodies.

For Cieslak and teammate Pat Raleigh, who also was at the party, the football season will be a welcome distraction from their memories of that night. It's also a reminder that Fitzgerald, a 19-year-old sophomore, won't be there with them.

"It was just unreal. The screams were frightening. It was just something that I don't want to see or live through again," said Cieslak, who along with Raleigh frantically pulled survivors from the wreckage.

"We never found him. It would have been tough if we did."

Raleigh and Fitzgerald were roommates their freshman year and all three lived near each other in Dekalb and spent nearly every day together in weeks leading up to the party.

The party was at the apartment of Fitzgerald's older brother, a gathering of old high school friends from Chicago's northern suburbs.

The three spent most of the afternoon and evening on the porch, discussing the Cubs' loss to the White Sox earlier in the day and talking excitedly about the upcoming season.

About 20 seconds before the deck fell, Cieslak and Raleigh went into the kitchen. Fitzgerald stayed behind.

"You ask yourself, 'What if this had happened? What if that had happened? What if it was me? What if he had come with us?" Raleigh said. "We did all we could to help.

"There were probably 15 of us down there pulling boards out. It probably helps to think that maybe we helped some other people get out."

Fitzgerald's teammates -- particularly Cieslak and Raleigh -- have tried to put the tragedy behind them.

That hasn't been easy.

"The other day in meetings we were watching film from the spring, and there's Shea -- out there doing real good. Then you think about it," Cieslak said. "Certain things will trigger it, but it's not at a point where it's stopping me from doing anything."

This is the second straight year Northern Illinois players have lost a teammate. In 2002, 19-year-old Jawan Jackson collapsed and died during conditioning drills. Jackson's death was attributed to an enlarged heart.

"Some of these kids have been through more death and tragedy than most kids their age normally have been through," coach Joe Novak said. "I hate to say it, but I think it's almost hardened them a little bit. I do know this, it's really drawn them closer."

Reminders of Fitzgerald will be everywhere when Northern Illinois opens its season at home against No. 15 Maryland on August 28 -- exactly two months after the night of the party.

A check, from donations and a pair of fund-raisers, will be presented to the Fitzgerald family before the game. That will be followed by a moment of silence, and every player will have Fitzgerald's No. 76 stitched to his jersey.

Then there's the locker room memorial, an idea of Cieslak and Raleigh. The glass-enclosed locker holds everything Fitzgerald would have worn onto the field. Plans are to keep the locker closed for the next three years, when Fitzgerald would have graduated.

There won't be any motivational speeches, at least not from Novak. He'd rather players emulate Fitzgerald, a tireless worker who overcame dyslexia to earn a full scholarship.

"We're not going to 'Win one for Shea." Novak said. "What I told the kids is, let's try to be like him."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index